TRAVEL up and down the A1, M6 and M4 this weekend and the chances are you will see Michael Guthrie.
He is the head of Pavilion, which owns 11 motorway and trunk road service stations, including Scotch Corner on the A1 in North Yorkshire, Knutsford, Cheshire (M6) and Aust in Avon (M4). His picture beams down on visitors, inviting them to send any complaints to him, personally.
And complain they do - two or three times a day on average - but nowhere near as frequently as they used to. Since paying almost pounds 100m for the sites in 1991, Guthrie has spent pounds 20m upgrading them. He has opened branches of Burger King on the motorway, built pizza restaurants (he runs the company that owns Pizzaland), installed business lounges with phones and fax machines, given truck drivers rest areas, and improved petrol pumps. But top of his list was the toilets.
This was partly because market research showed that as a nation we value clean toilets at our service stations above anything else, but also because he viewed them as the key to success. Too many of us, he moans, still only visit the service station to use its toilets, and never venture inside the restaurants and shops. Years of attack on service stations in general from the likes of Egon Ronay have taught us that this may be no bad thing. But if Guthrie is to show a return on his money, he must improve what he terms the 'conversion rate' - persuading people who stop to spend a penny that they should spend a few pounds elsewhere.
Hence the upgraded facilities and the personal touch - such as his picture appearing everywhere. Takings are up 30 per cent since he took over and he is planning to build new service stations. At pounds 30m a time, he promises they will be 'state of the art'. Of one thing you can be certain: they will have great toilets.
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